Cultural Disengagement & A Thin View Of Sin

Why does the modern evangelical church produce so few artists of excellence?

Just to clarify- there are certainly artists who are Christians practising at the highest level in the arts (Scott Derrickson, David Eugene Edwards, Sufjan Stevens, Makoto Fujimura, Lecrae, Milton Jones, Michelle Williams, Frederick Buechner, etc). However, two things are noticeable. Firstly, there aren’t that many. Even in the list of examples I’ve given, I’d be surprised if many of you have heard of all of them, and for most people who don’t read Christian art blogs, that hit ratio would dramatically decrease. Secondly, not many of them would be happy calling themselves ‘evangelical Christians’.

This is not an accident. There are reasons for this and one of the most important reasons, I think, is the ongoing perpetuation of the secular/sacred divide- the idea that some areas of life are holy and spiritual and proper, and that others aren’t. In my forages into Christendom, I find that support for this way of thinking is a bit like voting for the Conservative Party- nobody admits to it, in fact most people express a vocal displeasure at the idea, but ultimately most people do it.

It won’t involve putting a guilty tick in a certain box on a ballot paper, but it will involve holding a higher view of full time Christian ‘ministry’ than of other means of employment, expecting the presence of God to be revealed exclusively in gatherings of Christians (especially at certain times of the week) and filling your libraries with books and albums in accordance with the faith commitments of the artists, rather than in terms of any particular artistic merit. It will also, on the other hand, lead to us disengaging ourselves from the wider culture.

The effect on artistic production is decisive. It causes creatives to distance themselves from the very work they will need to feed on if they are to learn excellence in their discipline. To take what is possibly a cheap shot, if a would be film maker cherishes ‘God is Not Dead’, ‘War Room’ and Veggie Tales, and shuns ‘No Country for Old Men’, ‘La vita è bella’ and Studio Ghibli, we all know what will happen (I hope).

With this in mind, I found a great Tim Keller quote that helpfully exposes our disengagement with popular culture, but also gives a reason why we’ve done this and even suggests a better approach. Over to you, Tim:

In general, the Christians’ reaction to popular culture in the last eighty years has been some form of disengagement. Music, movies, and television have been sweepingly evaluated as dangerous, polluting, or degrading. The withdrawal has taken different forms. One form is complete renunciation. Another form is the creation of an alternate Christian subculture littered with sanitized, overtly evangelistic forms of music, movies, TV shows, literature, vacation destinations, and so on. A third form of disengagement is uncritical consumption of popular culture without worldview discernment. (Just to butt in, if you’d like more on this, at the end of this article, I discuss Andy Crouch’s take on these postures towards culture. Sorry Dr Keller, please continue…) Why this disengagement with our culture?

One reason is a “thin” or legalistic view of sin, where sin is seen as a series of discrete acts of noncompliance with God’s regulations. You pursue Christian growth largely by seeking environments where you are less likely to do these sinful actions or to encounter others who have done them. Sin can essentially be removed from your life through separation and discipline. This view of sin comports with a lack of understanding of the thoroughness and richness of Christ’s gracious work for us. For without an understanding of grace we will believe we must (and can) earn our salvation. But to accomplish that we will need a view of sin that is easier to conquer through conscious effort… A theologically “thick” view of sin, by contrast, sees it [sin] as a compulsive drive of the heart to produce idols. This view should lead neither to withdrawal nor to uncritical consumption, but rather to humble, critical engagement with culture. (Every Good Endeavour, pp192-93)

Food for thought methinks!

Of course, I’m assuming that none of us would be particularly proud to owning up to this ‘thin’ view. Another one for you Tory voters then! On the eve of election day at that.

Talk about finger on the pulse!

 

Jonny Mellor

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